Fuuinjutsu is an art form. Every mark, every line and stroke and particle has to be made exactly as intended. There's no space for sloppy penmanship or ink blots, there's no room for pause or hesitation when your brush is soaked with ink and every wobble of your hand will end up stained into paper. For practice, it's best to use scrap paper and regular ink. Messing around with seals could take off fingers or limbs or even kill you—which is why it's recommended not to start with chakra conductive ink and expensive scrolls. Everything about fuuinjutsu is expensive, from the special ink to the paper to the amount of time and effort you need to put into perfecting the craft.
But it hasn't stopped Natsume yet.
What people forget is that Natsume has just as much energy as his little brother, he just focuses it differently. It's therapeutic to keep his hands moving. He hyper-fixates on the repetition of calligraphy, practicing the same characters over and over again until they suit his perfectionist nature. His fingers are cramped and stiff and stained with black, but he keeps going at it every single day.
Genma's penmanship is beautiful. He's a man made for detail work, with steady hands and a calm demeanor. His skills lie in assasination with poisons and senbon, the little things that require extra care and hours of training. He knows enough about fuuinjutsu to get Natsume started, and goes out of his way to acquire more resources the further along Natsume gets.
That's something the Uzumaki appreciates.
Adults are very rarely trustworthy. But Genma never raises a hand against Natsume. The man never looks at him like he's dirt, or something shameful. Sometimes the jounin is sad, umber eyes looking for ghosts in the childish features of Natsume's face. Genma trains him to be better, pushing and pushing until his skills are polished and expanding. Weeks and weeks go by and Natsume no longer tenses when his back is to his sensei—because Genma feels like a wall of earth, like something that Natsume can lean on.
One summer afternoon, while training his chakra, Genma's presence explodes to the point where Natsume tastes almonds on his tongue, smells fresh cut grass and feels something immovable and settled, yet tinged with anguish. It's a lot. Enough to make him gasp and recoil, batting away Genma's awkward hand.
He breathes deeply through his nose and squeezes his eyes shut. "Can you back off? Your chakra is really overwhelming."
"My chakra?" Genma repeats.
Natsume cracks an eye open, the surge receding. He gives the other man a look, "Don't tell me you've forgotten what it is?"
"Cheeky," the man mutters, "I'm more concerned with the fact that you can even sense me to the point of pain—"
"I wasn't in pain!"
"Discomfort." Genma rectifies dryly, "Answer me this, can you sense me at all times?"
Natsume purses his lips. The thing about chakra is that it's all around you. In the grass and earth, in the air—and Konoha is no small time village, it's packed with bodies and chakra signatures. "For the most part, yeah. Can't everyone?"
They're shinobi, it seems pretty natural to be able to sense the very thing that fuels them.
Genma rubs the back of his neck, "To some extent. If you're using a jutsu or flaring your chakra—concentrated or large bursts are easy to notice. But if everyone could sense chakra even when it's at the base level or being contained, then we'd have far more trouble with spywork. Shinobi who can identify chakra with ease even in its natural state are what we call Sensors, and their abilities are...ranged depending on distance and precision. There are those that can sense emotion and chakra nature, or tell individuals apart. There's a rumor that Nidaime-sama could sense people from miles away."
Huh. Suddenly the descriptors he's been attaching to people make a little more sense. Natsume recalls exactly how Genma feels. "You're...earth."
"Got it in one, kid." The Jounin rocks on his heels, senbon shifting from side to side. "I know that to aid in your focus, you form the Hitsuji hand sign. It'll help you concentrate your chakra to your senses. Unfortunately, it's not exactly something I can help you train with. I'm not a natural-born sensor."
Natsume looks down at his hands, absently noting the callouses and aching blisters. It's a useful skill to have. It feels like it's coming together now—the feelings he gets from others, the shadows at the edges of his senses, the reason he stopped in that alley. It sounds like the best way to improve is to practice his chakra control and meditate. Or something. That doesn't seem so bad, except the idea of sitting completely still isn't exactly appealing. If he doesn't have anything to occupy his hands with then he'll be left to his over-imaginative thoughts and excess energy.
Genma clicks his tongue. "Alright. Let's get back to work. If you can last a minute against me with that bokken then we'll go on a training trip. Outside the village."
He perks up. He's never been outside the village before, has only gazed at the towering walls surrounding them. Just outside there is dense forest, sprinkled with farmland and patches of homes. The closest town is a days walk away by civilian standards.
Natsume shifts and puts thoughts of chakra away for now, pulling his bokken from where it rests at his hip. Across from him, Genma doesn't move from his slouched, lax position. It's a little annoying, but Natsume isn't yet at the skill level for the jounin to take him seriously. One day, maybe. He darts forward, the wooden sword whipping around like an extension of his arm. It gives him better reach and lets him stay on the far end of Genma's space. The man will have to shift his form and weight to grab at Natsume.
No matter how quickly he strikes and moves, he's still not able to land a hit on Genma. The man grins, however, a flash of teeth and steel. The jounin's dark eyes carefully watch Natsume's attacks—and Natsume feels something like pride blossom in his chest, feels petals press to his rib cage and threaten to burst from his skin. The new focus means that he's become more of a threat.
When Genma retaliates, it's just on the side of too fast. Glancing blows are dodged by the skin of Natsume's teeth, his bones rattling with every hit he counters with his bokken. Genma doesn't give Natsume more than he can handle, but he gives enough that Natsume has to push himself. He always feels exhausted after their training sessions, but it's a good sort of tired—helps him fall right to sleep.
(Helps him feel like he really is improving.)
Suddenly, Genma moves faster than before, hand darting out too quickly for the eye to see. Natsume twists his bokken up for a block and braces for a hit that never comes. Instead, a hand lands on his head. Genma grins down at him and ruffles the mess of red under his fingers.
"Minute's up kid. You did good."
"You went easy on me."
"Of course I did, I'm a jounin."
Natsume resolutely does not pout. "That's not what I meant."
"Do you want to go on this training trip or not?" Genma asks, amused. His chakra feels like sun-warmed rocks.
Shisui offers to watch Naruto when he can. It brings some measure of relief to Natsume, as he's never been separated from his brother for such a long period of time. He's not even sure Naruto can be trusted to take care of himself if Natsume isn't there to hold his hand. The blond has never had to cook or attempt his homework on his own—now that he thinks about it, maybe Natsume has been doing too much and not letting his little brother grow on his own. Then again, Naruto was six.
He should be acting like a kid and being looked after. It just really sucks that Natsume has to do the looking after, even if he loves his brother more than anything.
Shisui will be busy with his own training and missions, he's a jounin after all. A strong one, too. The stress lines on his youthful face aren't just for show. This means that Naruto will have to be on his own for some measure of time. Not only is that a terrifying thought, but it's also Natsume's worst nightmare. All he can think about these days is coming home to find that Naruto has drowned in the tub or killed himself on the edge of a table or burned the entire apartment down trying to cook.
In the end, he sets up his little brother with a couple packs of cup ramen. Naruto can make those in his sleep at this point, and it's the least risky meal—even if it is heavy with sodium and disgustingly unhealthy to consume day in and day out.
He wakes up the morning of the training journey long before Naruto, who snores away the next bed over. Natsume smiles briefly at his little brother, blond hair wild with sleep and limbs tangled in shuriken patterned sheets. The sun is only just beginning to peer over the horizon, painting Konoha in shades of orange cream and carnation pink. The world is still fuzzy and dim when he steps outside, new pack over his shoulders. It almost feels too big for his body, the bottom of the pack bumping the backs of his thighs with every step.
Genma waits for him at the gate, cutting a tall figure against the gloom of sunrise. His shadow is long and dark, his hair tinged orange in the light. "All set, kiddo?"
They aren't going too far. This is more like a camping excursion than anything else, where Natsume will be taught survival skills and hunting tactics that he'll be missing out on due to early graduation. It's Natsume's first time running through the trees with chakra, so they're probably going slower than Genma's usual pace. They make quiet conversation, Natsume's replies marginally shorter than the jounin's. Genma tests him on various kanji used in fuuinjutsu and Natsume adjusts to multitasking while leaping from branch to branch meters above the ground.
The sun finds its way higher in the sky, the trees shielding them from the harsh light. With every hour that passes, the atmosphere warms and the world awakens. Summer is in full swing around them, cicadas screaming and the air thickening with the usual mugginess of a Konoha August. The Land of Fire is hot summers and frigid winters, always a little wet no matter which season. He's sure that the weather in Suna must be a dry heat—which would probably be preferable at this point, with the way the air seems to cling to his skin and drag him down.
Genma's hair curls just a little at the tips from the humidity. He doesn't look like he's sweating at all though. The kind of chakra control it takes to regulate his body temperature while using chakra to leap through the trees is not something Natsume is privy to just yet. He takes the full brunt of the heat with a scowl, his own hair puffed to twice its normal volume.
They stop when the sun is high enough in the sky to signify noontime, and Natsume's stomach is beginning to protest. He feels hot and tired, but not as bad as he thought he'd feel after hours of nonstop travel. His stamina has significantly improved, mostly thanks to Gai and his training routines. Since graduation, Natsume hasn't seen the Green Beast at all, too busy with Genma and genin life. Privately, he can admit it feels a bit weird to not hear Gai's boisterous voice during training sessions.
Does he miss the man?
He's not too sure. It's not like Gai is dead. Throughout their training he'd continually told himself not to get attached, no matter how welcoming Gai ended up being. Now he doesn't know what to feel.
They packed no food.
The purpose of the excursion is to train his survival skills. That means he needs to hunt, kill and cook his own food. He needs to learn which plants are edible, which are poisonous, what climate they grow in and in what season they bloom. How to set up a camp, how to start a fire and use seals to disperse smoke before it forms—how to cover it all up and make it seem as if no one had ever been there.
Genma shows him how to make various traps for small prey, and how to make various traps for much larger prey; the kind with loyalties and murderous intent. Natsume resolves to buy a book on herbs when he gets back to the village. There's no way he's going to memorize all the information that his sensei is dumping on him right now.
The need to dig a pit for a makeshift 'outhouse', which is Natsume's first meeting with discomfort. To be a shinobi means more than just murder, it's becoming impervious to the sight of nakedness and gore and literal shit. There's not a smidge of embarrassment on Genma's face when he instructs Natsume to dig the hole at least four feet deep, and only three yards away from the edge of their camp, so the view isn't obscured. The older man was raised in the midst of a war, he's probably seen way too many people shit their pants out of fear or after death or just perched over a hole in the middle of forest.
Natsume swallows his discomfort.
"The most basic structure of a camp includes a water source, pit latrine, traps and a smokeless fire. This can change depending on the situation. While we're in our own country, fires are fine. In another, even smokeless it might not be the best decision as it still creates light. A general rule while traveling in hostile territory is to never stop after the sun has already set. You either stop when there's still light, or you move through the night. Trying to set up a camp in the dark isn't smart or safe, and you can use evening light to mask a fire if you need one—as long as you put it out before dusk."
There's a bubbling brook about half a mile from their position, from which they'd been able to catch some fish. Small, but enough for now. Their hunting traps haven't caught anything just yet. The stream water he swallows is gritty and just on the side of too warm after being boiled over the fire. Everything about this is mildly uncomfortable.
The two of them sit across from each other, the position allowing them a wider visual range. Natsume has already eaten his way through his portion of the fish they'd caught, hands sticky with fat grease. At least now that he's sitting, he can work on regulating his temperature with his chakra and cool himself down.
Genma continues to look unbothered, not a hair out of place. He munches slowly on the skewered fish, taking his time with his words. "Solo missions are considerably more dangerous than any other, not only because of the whole solo fighting thing, but also because you don't have anyone to watch your back during downtime. In our case, a two man squad isn't exceptionally common. It requires a ten hour rest, not including the time it takes to set up camp between just two people. It's why three man squads are preferred. Puts you at a bit of a disadvantage, since you don't have your own genin squad."
The man pauses for a second, but when Natsume doesn't chime in with any questions, he continues. "Genin are trained in three man squads because that's Konoha's preferred set up for efficiency. Of course, mission parameters can change that. You have to consider the size of your group and how long the mission is expected to take when figuring out sleep rotations. The best time to do so would be before you even leave the gates, but some missions are on the fly and there isn't much time to talk before you're on the move. Hate those ones."
"Why's a three man squad the best for efficiency?"
Genma finishes the last of his fish and tosses the skewer stick to the side. Before responding, he pulls a senbon from somewhere and slides it between his lips. "Three people setting up a campsite takes barely any time at all, and you only need a nine hour sleep cycle, with each person getting six hours if you split the watch time into three shifts. It's more sleep than a solo or two person team would get, and takes less time overall in a more efficient manner. Larger groups might split watch over the course of a few days, but we can't waste resources on every mission by sending out more than three every time."
"I see." Natsume murmurs. So it looks like he'll have to play friends with other shinobi over the course of his career. He can probably deal with that as long as they don't expect him to make small talk.
"C'mon," Genma grunts, pushing himself to his feet. "Lemme show you how to dispose of food traces."
Natsume grips his skewer and stands.
That night, they split the nightwatch into two five-hour shifts. Genma lets him sleep first, and it takes Natsume at least an hour before he falls into a fitful rest. The ground is hard and unforgiving despite the slight barrier the sleeping mat gifts him. When he's shaken awake he doesn't feel well rested, and his body protests when he forces himself to move. All the day's activity combined with about four hours of rest time really does a number on his six-year-old body.
Genma slumps into his sleeping bag and presumably is out like a light—but Natsume can't be sure the jounin is going to get any sleep at all. Shifting soundlessly, Natsume presses his back to a nearby tree and looks around into the dark. Shadows and dark spots shift with the wind, trees groan and wildlife scutters across dry brush. He feels paranoia lay heavily over him like a thick blanket. Since the fire was put out and the remains discarded, the only light is from the faintest flashes of the moon through the leaves.
He can't curl in on himself, because that hinders his movement if he needs to react immediately. All he can do is sit quietly and focus his chakra to peer around them. It's actually pretty good training, and it takes part of his mind off the fear of the dark. Genma's chakra is carefully contained and stagnant like a mountain—but there isn't much of a difference in presence. Natsume is almost positive now that the man isn't asleep, and likely will stay awake just in case Natsume fails to complete guard duty.
There isn't much else he can sense aside from a few animals, and their chakra feels distinctly different from that of a human. He's not quite sure how to describe it. In the same way he can feel the differences in a person's chakra, he can just tell when something isn't human. Their presence is too small, too faint. They blend into the surrounding area, like smudges of graphite on paper.
He spends the next few hours practicing with his chakra and reciting fuuinjutsu particles in his head. Every once in a while he'll hear a sound from an animal that'll distract him—make the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and his paranoia grow—but nothing ever happens.
When the dim light of sunrise breaks through the treetops, Genma sits up. It's almost five hours on the dot, Natsume having been just about to push himself up and make his way over to his sensei.
Because they have nowhere to be, Genma shows him how to check the hunting traps they'd left overnight. There's a rabbit in one of them and a squirrel in another. Both alive.
"This is another lesson you're missing out on in the Academy." Genma murmurs, crouching down next to Natsume and the squirming animals. "They teach you basic woodland survival, including how to trap, kill and skin animals. Seeing as you graduated early, you weren't able to learn that."
Natsume looks down at the frightened, wiggling animals. Shards of ice lodge in his chest, birthing seeds of discomfort. It's a different kind of nervousness, not at all like what he'd felt having to use the bathroom in full view of another person—even if said person hadn't batted an eye or seemed to care.
Genma is a warm and steady presence at his side. Crouched like this, the top of Natsume's head is about shoulder height. Natsume is always reminded of how small and young he is compared to everyone around him—and kind as Genma is, he always seems to forget that Natsume is a child everytime he sees the glint of the hitai-ate around Natsume's arm. "You know what I'm asking you to do, right?"
"Kill them." Natsume replies, unmoving.
Genma shifts a little, the first signs of discomfort Natsume has seen from the man. "Yeah, kid. Doesn't take much. Get a good hold of the head and body. It's just a sharp twist—you'll feel a pop. Animals like this are tiny and fragile in our hands, Natsume. But they're like people in that way as well. Easier to kill than you think."
The rabbit thrashes when Natsume puts his hands on it, squirming helplessly in its stuck position. He grips the back, fingers clenched tight around tufts of fur. He can feel the rabbit's heartbeat shake its whole body. Do it, he thinks.
Genma watches quietly. His earthy tones feel less like a place to rest against and more like a corner Natsume's been backed into.
Do it. This is his life now.
Natsume's fingers tremble, nausea rearing its ugly head. His face remains carefully blank as emotions he's unable to name twist around his ribcage into tightly wound coils.
He snaps the rabbit's neck.
Skinning it is easier than the killing, though Natsume doesn't voice his thoughts. Genma skins and guts the rabbit with skilled, familiar movements. It's for Natsume's benefit—he's to observe and then copy the motions on the squirrel, the smaller and less meaty animal. In the event that he messes up, they'll still have the rabbit and a pocketful of edible herbs. There's a blackberry bush growing wildly by the stream, the brambles sharp and threatening to soft hands. Genma plucked as many as he could carry without much thought, hands far more dexterous than Natsume's. He himself ends up with a few paper-thin cuts that heal within minutes.
They eat their food and Genma shows him how to find mint, which also grows by the stream, in the shade of a few larger plants. He stuffs a handful of the leaves in his mouth and chews to rid the tacky, gross feeling left from not being able to brush his teeth. He picks the beginning bits of plaque from his teeth with his fingernails beside his sensei.
"Normally we wouldn't waste time doing this." Genma murmurs.
And yet they are, so Natsume can't help but think that the man is trying to go easy on him.
"What about smell? After a few days, people start to stink."
Genma chuckles, "Trust me, I'm aware. Most shinobi use scent-blocking seals or scentless deodorizers. For long journeys there's usually time to wash off in a river, depending on where you are. Subtle scents or scentless soaps are what most shinobi go for when at home anyway. Those that stay in the village more are a lot more lax on that kind of thing—you know, wearing perfumes or colognes, or just not bothering to try and hide their normal scent. Just don't douse yourself in anything before meeting an Inuzuka, unless you want them to avoid you."
Natsume hasn't met any Inuzuka yet, but he's seen them around. Red clan markings, feral appearances, usually brown or black hair—and huge dogs. Some of them look a lot like wolves, but everyone he's overheard always calls them dogs, no matter the size. He's not much of a dog person, really. Cats are less bothersome and don't require constant supervision. Naruto once really wanted a dog, begging and pleading for a puppy, but Natsume knew it would've been him who ended up having to deal with the worst of it.
It had been one of Naruto's worst tantrums, though his younger brother forgot about it a few days later and instead insisted he wanted a toad.
"Can I get that at the Shinobi Surplus?" he asks, the taste of mint sharp and grassy on the back of his tongue.
"Yeah, you can buy scentless soaps there, too. We'll be working on the scent-blocking seals soon so you won't need to worry about purchasing them." The senbon clicks against Genma's teeth.
Natsume tries to replace the vacant feeling in his chest with excitement at the idea of learning more fuinjutsu. But he still feels odd and bloody, the lives of two innocent animals on his conscience.
It really was easy.
They have two weeks out here, so Genma shows Natsume how to completely cover up the area to make it look as if they were never there, and then they leave. They travel in whichever direction Genma has chosen, but the sun lowering behind them tells Natsume that they're heading east. He's only briefly seen a map of the Land of Fire, but from what he recalls it means they're making their way to the coast.
He's never seen the ocean before. Something about it makes his extremities tingle with—with what? Desire to see the water? To feel sand under his bare feet or taste the bitter tang of salt across his mouth? He isn't sure.
On the fourth day they end up by one of the Land of Fire's many rivers, taking turns stripping down to nothing and cleaning the dirt and summer sweat from their bodies. The water is frigid, but nice compared to the hot sun blazing down on the back of their necks. Genma shows him how to wash his clothes and Natsume forces himself to grow accustomed to nakedness. It's not so bad, as he's been responsible for bathing Naruto for the past few years. It's only weird because for some reason, in his head nudity coincides with sex—and casual nudity coincides with intimacy and trust. Maybe there's trust, but there's definitely nothing intimate or sexual between him and Genma.
They're just two bags of meat when it comes down to it.
Whatever knowledge that sits in his head from...before...is the reason for the odd stigmas he attaches to certain things. It makes him feel even more alone and on the outskirts when the people around him are so comfortable and familiar with cultural connotations and actions that Natsume finds instinctively odd or foreign.
They dry their clothes in the sun and Natsume practices water walking while he waits. He never feels comfortable enough to look at the man straight on, but he manages to see scars and puckered burn marks along Genma's bare skin. A map of violence across his flesh.
Natsume looks down at his own skin, light brown and unmarred. He wonders if one day he'll be covered in old wounds with stories to tell.
The first week passes quickly and by the time the second week is half-way through they're turned around and on their way back, heading west to Konoha. He's grown a bit used to sleeping on the ground, warming himself against the chill of the night with his chakra. More animals have fallen to his hands, and he's a bit numb to it now. It still feels saddening—but only for a moment. There's no other food out here, and survival takes precedence over his feelings.
Genma teaches him hand signals for stop, go, enemy approaching and enemy spotted. There's a few others to go over, but Genma takes pity on his fried brain and only teaches a few. Natsume learned a lot during this trip, more than he expected. Shinobi life is harsh and miserable and relies far more on base instincts than he'd first anticipated. They become tools and animals for their village, chained dogs to bark and tear at each other. Like Genma had said, animals are easier to kill than you think.
Not having a toothbrush sucks. Not having more clothes is awful. Not knowing if you'll have enough food is terrifying. But they are shinobi and they must be exposed to this. They must learn from it—how to overcome, how to flourish in the wilderness like the beasts they are.
They're making their way back and he doesn't smell because he learned how to clean himself and his clothes in the wild. He's not hungry because he learned how to hunt and forage. He's not dead because he learned how to stay on guard, how to look for signs of nearby life and how to be on his feet within a second of waking. He can regulate his temperature with chakra and walk on water. He memorized hand signals for foriegn nin and basic movement.
It was only one training trip, but he already feels stronger. He already feels better than he was when they left.
"They won't all be like this," Genma murmurs around his senbon. "We'll come across bandits, criminals or foreign shinobi. I chose to keep us towards the east because it was less likely for us to run into other shinobi—unless Kiri decided to cross the ocean and infiltrate the forests."
"Could they do that?"
His sensei shakes his head. "Not without some trouble. We have guard posts along the entire border of the Land of Fire. On most occasions, it's not the most exciting job in the world." Genma glances back at him as they fly through the trees. "Unfortunately we'll probably have to suffer through it soon enough."
Natsume frowns, "Doesn't really sound like something a genin should participate in."
"Normally, you'd be correct. For you, it'll be good C Rank experience, especially if we're posted by the coastal border or the border with Kusa. The Suna-Konoha border might be okay, but even with the alliance we're not exactly buddy-buddy."
"Politics." Natsume scoffs lightly.
Genma grins a little, "You said it."
They reach Konoha at the end of the second week, when the sun is orange and heavy above the horizon. He doesn't feel any sort of excitement when he sees the gates. What he is excited about is seeing Naruto, and maybe that shows on his face.
"Glad to be home?" Genma asks, a knowing smile on his mouth.
Natsume isn't quite sure the man actually gets it—because Konoha isn't a home. It's wood and cement and eyes on his back. A prison. Naruto is his home. But he's learned more on the trip than just survival. He spent two weeks in close quarters with a man who put his heart and soul into serving Konoha, so he gets it now.
He gets it.
You don't get far if you act traitorous—if you show your scorn for the village. This is a military dictatorship and prodigy or not he's a child in a world meant for adults.
"Yes," he says, Naruto's smile and bright blue eyes in his head, "I'm glad to be home and take an actual shower."